George William Jorgensen, a Danish-American army veteran, wiped the news about the successful testing of the H-Bomb off of the front page of newspapers when - after a two-year hiatus in Denmark - he returned to the United States in late 1952 as Christine Jorgensen. George-Christine was not the first male-to-female sex reassignment - that had happened in Germany in 1930, and the first female-to-male sex change had been performed in Great Britain in 1947 - but he was the first "transsexual" (a term coined in the early 20th century but not commonly used until the 1960s) to be publicized. On December 1, 1952, Americans in the deep freeze of the Cold War with the Soviet Union (manifesting itself in the frustrating and bloody stalemate in Korea), living in a country racked by McCarthyism (one of whose subjects was homosexuals and other "deviants" in the federal government), were told about Christine by the "New York Daily News" in a banner headline: "EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY: OPERATIONS TRANSFORM BRONX YOUTH."
The German doctors who performed the first sex reassignment surgeries in 1930 came from an "enlightened" tradition rooted in the last half of the 19th century that saw male homosexuals as a kind of third gender, a buffer zone between the "normal" male and the female. Homosexuals were considered effeminate; all were considered to be suffering from too high a level of female hormones in their body, which caused inversion into this "third" sex when exposed to a precipitating event such as an overindulgent mother.
According to her 1967 autobiography, the man George Jorgensen was plagued by homo-erotic desire, but as a highly moral Christian the idea of having sex with another man sickened him physically. Raised a Lutheran, he had a "can do" philosophy and bought into that part of the Protestant ethic that held a person could transform themselves. He had a problem, and though many might think it insoluble, he was determined to fix it. Rather than surrender to the exigencies of gay love, which was "sinful", the devout Lutheran sought to reassign his body to the correct gender for incorporating sexual desire for men: the female.
Homosexuality until the early 1970s was officially considered a disease by the official psychological Establishment (albeit one of the mind rather than the body) and was listed as such in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual that is the bible or the head-shrinking industry. Modern (non-homeopathic) medicine in the West has always insisted on intervention after the fact (rather than focusing on prevention or less invasive treatments for a body that has become unbalanced and thus ill). If one were sick with cancer, the Western physician would insist that his patient go under the knife. Putting George under the knife to correct his "illness" (seen rooted in a malfunction of the endocrine system that made him an indeterminate sex) thus was a logical offshoot of Western medicine. If George desired men, it was "logical" to assign him the correct gender to house such desires (incorrect desires when contained in the male body. The idea that a person could desire a person of the same sex was not normal; a man loving another man was not masculine).
There's a saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. In the immediate postwar world, George Jorgensen was considered broken. His "problem" was that he was a man who desired other men, and he and his physicians were determined to fix it. Tolerance wasn't a well-established concept, apparently, in 1950. That the psychological troubles caused by his homosexuality - which he denied - were rooted in unenlightened attitudes towards gay love seemingly was not an issue. He was broken, physically, and his body could be fixed. It's a kind of hubris that, in retrospect, is kind of dazzling, the Western idea of transformation that reached its apotheosis in the United States.
When viewed in this light, it can be seen why George-Christine's transformation from a man desiring men to a woman desiring men wasn't treated as radical in the 1950s, but rather provided comfort to a conservative and conformist America. Unlike the feminists and black and gay power movement of the 1960s, George-Christine didn't threaten the status quo by demanding fundamental changes to the system. What he wanted, what was at the root of George's desire to be Christine, was to conform to the rigidly defined sex roles of Cold War America. Only women could desire men; George desired men - therefore, logically, he should be a woman. In the best tradition of can-do, entrepreneurial Protestant America, become a woman he did!
Christine Jorgensen became a major celebrity, arguably one of the most famous people in the world for a period in the mid-1950s. She cashed in by selling her story to the Hearst newspaper chain (William Randolph Hearst's media empire, though essentially conservative since the late 1920s, always enjoyed sensationalism for sensationalism's sake - it sold newspapers); she also launched a stage show in which she toured for years. In the 1960s through her death in 1989, she made the rounds of the college campus circuit, lecturing about trans-sexuality and providing counsel and comfort to trans-gendered people. The busy Miss Jorgensen also found time to write her autobiography (published in 1967) and was the subject of a biopic in 1970, The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970).
A smoker, Christine Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer in 1989, still enjoying herself as a gal and as a celebrity to the very end. She will be remembered as one of those All-American types that her native land is so good at producing, rah-rah individuals who tackle a problem head on, by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, which in her case is as good a metaphor as any for this remarkable and courageous woman.